Signs of the Times (2/8/13)

Half Million Tell SCOTUS: Leave Marriage Alone

At the beginning of the second term of a president dubbed the most pro-homosexual president in United States history — who refused to continue the obligatory legal defense of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) during his first term — traditional marriage advocates might have gotten just the shot in the arm that they need. A friend-of-the-court brief was filed by The Manhattan Declaration, Inc. with the U.S. Supreme Court last week in a lawsuit to defend marriage as between one man and one woman. The organization serves as the voice of more than half a million Evangelical, Orthodox and Catholic Christians set out to preserve not only traditional marriage, but other foundational principles of America, including the sanctity of human life and religious liberty. “Natural law, the nature of the human person, and common sense provide ample reason to preserve marriage as it has always been understood,” argues Chicago attorney John Mauck of the law firm Mauck & Baker. He submitted the amicus brief on behalf of the Manhattan Declaration.

Boy Scouts Delay Decision on Admitting Gays

A decision on whether the Boy Scouts of America will end its ban on gay members and leaders will not be voted on until the organization’s annual meeting in May, the national executive board said Wednesday, the Associated Press reports. Deron Smith, the BSA director of public relations, said the executive board would prepare a resolution to be voted on by the 1,400 voting members of the national council. “After careful consideration and extensive dialogue within the Scouting family, along with comments from those outside the organization, the volunteer officers of the Boy Scouts of America’s National Executive Board concluded that due to the complexity of this issue, the organization needs time for a more deliberate review of its membership policy,” Smith said. The meeting will take place in May in Grapevine, Texas.

Catholic Bishops Reject New Contraception Proposal

The nation’s Catholic bishops on Thursday (Feb. 7) rejected the Obama administration’s latest proposals to broaden accommodations for religious groups in regulations that require insurance companies or employers to provide free birth control and abortion pill coverage. The new accommodation contained a more expansive definition of what constitutes a religious group. It also detailed how faith-based institutions that may not be exempt – especially religiously affiliated hospitals and universities – would be shielded from any involvement in providing contraceptive coverage; under the new rules, the insurance companies themselves would arrange that with the individual employee. But New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the proposals fail to address or ease all of the hierarchy’s concerns, and said the bishops would continue to press ahead with efforts to overturn the mandate in court.

Fewer Americans Will Have Employer Health Insurance

As “Obamacare” kicks in, a growing number of Americans will move away from employer-provided health insurance plans, according to the latest forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office. Some 7 million people are expected to lose or drop their employment-based coverage by 2022, according to CBO. Around 170 million Americans currently have heath insurance tied to their jobs. Those who lose that coverage won’t all be joining the ranks of the uninsured or the unemployed, though. Many are expected to shift into the health insurance exchanges being set up under the Affordable Care Act. The number of people participating in those exchanges is projected to grow from 7 million in 2014 — the first year they’ll be available — to 24 million in 2016.

Obama Planning First Visit to Israel as President

President Obama is planning his first trip to Israel since taking office in 2008, CBN News reports. The trip is planned for the spring, but the White House has not yet released the date or details about the itinerary. While in the region, Obama will also make stops in the West Bank and Jordan. Obama last visited Israel during his 2008 campaign, and his lack of visiting the Jewish state during his first term as president has drawn criticism from some pro-Israel groups who say the administration isn’t supportive of the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East. The president visited other countries in the region during his first term, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Power Plant Carbon Pollution Declines

Heat-trapping gases from U.S. power plants fell 4.6 percent in 2011 from the previous year as plants burned less coal, the biggest source of greenhouse gas pollution, according to a new government report. Power plants were responsible for 2.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2011. The reduction from 2010 reflects a relative decline in the use of coal, the dominant U.S. energy source, and an increase in natural gas and renewable sources that produce lower amounts of greenhouse gases. Power plants remain the largest stationary source of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, producing roughly two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources.

  • While the generation of greenhouse gases contribute to global warming, it is more of a natural cycle of warming earth has experienced before – except this time, it’s an end-time super cycle

States Fight Back Against Drones

Lawmakers in at least 11 states are proposing various restrictions on the use of drones over their skies amid concerns the unmanned aerial vehicles could be exploited by local authorities to spy on Americans. Concerns mounted after the Federal Aviation Administration began establishing safety standards for civilian drones, which are becoming increasingly affordable and small in size. Some police agencies have said the drones could be used for surveillance of suspects, search-and-rescue operations, and gathering details on damage caused by natural disasters. Virginia lawmakers on Tuesday approved a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by police and government agencies. Proponents of the legislation say the unfettered use of drones could infringe on Virginians’ privacy rights.

Young Adults the Most Stressed

Stress levels for Americans have taken a decidedly downward turn across the USA — except for young adults, whose stress is higher than the national norm, says a survey released Thursday. Those ages 18-33 — the Millennial generation — are plenty stressed, and it’s not letting up: 39% say their stress has increased in the past year; 52% say stress has kept them awake at night in the past month. And more than any other age group, they report being told by a health care provider that they have either depression or an anxiety disorder. January statistics show unemployment among 18-29-year-olds is 13% and suggest that as many as 1.7 million young adults aren’t even counted as unemployed because they’ve given up looking.

Overall, the survey finds that 20% of Americans report extreme stress, which is an 8, 9 or 10 on the stress scale. Still, the extreme-stress report has declined since 2010, when the number was 24%. Also on the decline are unhealthy coping behaviors. Since 2008, eating to manage stress dropped from 34% to 25% in 2012. And drinking alcohol as a stress reliever dipped from 18% to 13%.Top stressors include money (69%), work (65%) and the economy (61%).

Postal Service Loses Less, but Still in Trouble

In the final three months of last year, the agency lost $1.3 billion — considerably less than the $3.3 billion lost in the same 2011 period. The service was hurt as the volume of first-class mail, which most consumers use to pay bills and stay in touch, decreased by 4.5.%. But it got help as shipping and package volume increased 4% compared to the prior year. Still, the service is in trouble. The key culprit remains a 2006 congressional mandate, under which it has to pre-fund healthcare benefits for future retirees. The USPS has been borrowing billions of dollars from taxpayers to make up for the shortfalls.

Postal Service to Stop Delivering Mail on Saturdays

The financially struggling U.S. Postal Service says it plans to stop delivering mail on Saturdays, but it will continue delivering packages six days a week. In an announcement scheduled for later Wednesday, the government agency is expected to say the cut, beginning in August, would mean a cost saving of about $2 billion annually. The move accentuates one of the agency’s strong points. Package delivery has increased by 14% since 2010. The delivery of letters and other mail has declined with the increasing use of email and other Internet use.

30% of Small-Businesses Fear Closing in 2013

The latest Gallup Poll indicates that many American small-business owners are anything but optimistic when it comes to the way the Obama administration is leading the nation. In fact, they’re downright fearful. According to the recently released Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index, when small-business owners in the United States were asked why they weren’t hiring new employees, a striking 61 percent said that it is because they are “worried about the potential cost of healthcare.” And 30 percent of owners say they are not hiring because they are worried they may no longer be in business in 12 months. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed expressed that they were “worried about new government regulations” and how such interference could jeopardize the livelihood of their businesses.

Economic News

The U.S. trade deficit narrowed sharply in December because oil imports plummeted and exports rose. The Commerce Department says the trade deficit fell nearly 21% in December, to $38.6 billion, smallest in nearly three years. Exports rose 2.1% to $186.4 billion. Exports of oil and other petroleum products rose to the highest level on record. Imports shrank 2.7% to $224.9 billion. Oil imports plunged to 223 billion barrels, the lowest since February 1997.

The Labor Department says weekly applications for unemployment benefits fell 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 366,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped to 350,500, the lowest in nearly five years. The average is low because of seasonal factors, which reduced applications sharply last month. It’s a sign that joblessness is not getting worse although there’s little evidence that job creation is improving enough to boost economic growth.

The number of Americans out of work at least six months fell to 4.7 million in January, down from 5.5 million a year ago and the lowest since June 2009. The 4.7 million total is still more than three times the pre-recession level. The long-term unemployed represented 38.1% of all jobless Americans last month, vs. 43% in January 2012.

The productivity of American workers dropped at the fastest pace in a year in the first quarter, the Labor Department reported Wednesday, underscoring how difficult it has become for U.S. businesses to squeeze more work out of current staffing levels. Non-farm productivity decreased at a 0.9 percent annual pace in January through March. Productivity has declined in three of the last five quarters. Productivity grew rapidly as the economy emerged from the 2007-09 recession. The gains were driven by companies’ cutting costs, particularly for labor.

United Kingdom

UK lawmakers took a big step Tuesday toward legalizing same-sex marriage, an issue that has prompted widespread rebellion within Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party. In a 400-175 vote, MPs approved the second reading of a bill legalizing such marriage, indicating a significant majority of members support the measure. However, it must go through several more stages before it can become law. The bill faces another vote in the House of Commons and a vote in the House of Lords. The legislation passed the House of Commons with the support of lawmakers from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The latter are in a coalition government with the Conservatives. The Church of England is among the religious bodies opposed to the legislation.

Middle East

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried Thursday to entice Egypt into a new alliance that could reshape the turbulent Middle East, speaking of forging “comprehensive” and “unfettered” relations after decades of distrust. A warming of ties between the two regional heavyweights could have uncomfortable repercussions for the U.S. and its wealthy Gulf allies, giving Iran a foothold to spread its influence in Egypt. In turn, Egypt could gain an avenue to influence the fate of Syria, a key ally of Iran, as well as economic benefits. Ahmadinejad’s visit is the first by an Iranian president in 30 years and he used it to launch a charm offensive to woo Egyptians and their leadership. He offered to extend cash-strapped Egypt a credit line and investments

Syria

Syrian troops and rebels clashed again Thursday in the capital Damascus, a day after what activists described as the heaviest fighting in months in President Bashar Assad’s seat of power. The clashes were inching closer to the heart of the city, but still were focused in outlying neighborhoods. Heavy fighting between rebels and President Bashar Assad’s forces broke out in parts of Damascus on Wednesday in some of the worst violence to hit the Syrian capital in weeks. Activists said the clashes were focused in the city’s western districts. Damascus has not seen the scale of violence that has destroyed whole neighborhoods in Syria’s other urban centers like Aleppo and Homs. While the government has lost control of parts of those cities, it has kept a tight grip on the capital despite the rebels’ attempts to storm the city center from their enclaves in its outskirts.

Iraq

Car bombs struck two outdoor markets in Shiite areas of Iraq on Friday, killing at least 31 people and wounding dozens in the bloodiest day in nearly a month, as minority Sunnis staged mass anti-government protests in a sign of mounting sectarian tensions. Tens of thousands of Sunni protesters rallied in five cities against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite accused of monopolizing power. Sunnis also complain of official discrimination. Sunni protester leaders have rejected a recent call by an al-Qaeda-linked group in Iraq to take up arms against the government, but there is concern militants are trying to exploit the discontent.

Tunisia

A Tunisian opposition leader critical of the Islamist-led government and violence by radical Muslims was shot to death Wednesday. The killing is likely to heighten tensions in a country whose path from dictatorship to democracy has been seen as a model for the Arab world. A leading member of a leftist alliance of parties known as the Popular Front, Chokri Belaid was shot as he left his house in the capital, Tunis. Belaid had been critical of Tunisia’s leadership, especially the moderate Islamist party Ennahda that dominates the government and accused authorities of not doing enough to stop violence by ultraconservatives who have targeted mausoleums, art exhibits and other things seen as out of keeping with their strict interpretation of Islam. Chanting loudly and waving flags, tens of thousands of people turned out Friday for the funeral of Belaid, whose assassination has sparked political uncertainty and violent protests.

Mali

A monthlong French offensive has killed “hundreds” of Islamist fighters in Mali, the French defense minister said, as his troops prepare to start withdrawing next month. France told the local Metro newspaper that it expects to begin withdrawing its troops out of Mali in March and leave African forces in control. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said despite the withdrawal, troops will continue operations to flush out militants in “some terrorist havens” in northern Mali. French-led troops now control Timbuktu and the city of Gao, along with a swath in between the two that was an Islamist stronghold for almost a year.

Earthquakes

A powerful earthquake off the Solomon Islands triggered a tsunami of up to 5 feet that damaged dozens of homes and killed nine people in the South Pacific island chain Wednesday. The death toll was expected to rise. Four villages on Santa Cruz were impacted by the waves, with two facing severe damage. The tsunami formed after an 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck near the town of Lata, on Santa Cruz in Temotu province, the easternmost province of the Solomons, about a 3-hour flight from the capital, Honiara. Temotu has a population of around 30,000 people. Strong aftershocks rattled the Solomon Islands, hampering relief efforts to tsunami-ravaged villages. A 7.1-magnitude earthquake rattled the Solomon Islands on Friday.

Weather

Tens of millions of people face travel nightmares, widespread power outages and potentially record snowfall from the fierce blizzard on track to batter the Northeast this weekend. New England and New York are forecast to take the hardest hit, but others around the country could feel the ripple effect from canceled flights out of New York and other airports along the Eastern Seaboard. As of Friday morning, more than 3,000 flights have been cancelled. The National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings for the entire New York City metro area, Long Island, all of Connecticut and Rhode Island, eastern Massachusetts and coastal sections of New Hampshire and Maine. Some parts of New England should see more than 2 feet of snow, and some coastal areas could see hurricane-force winds of up to 74 mph, the weather service says.

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